but none, to my knowledge, have treated her central subject—and its relation to matters of community—so completely. Encounters in Avalanche Country is a welldocumented exploration effectively shaped by the originality of its approach. It should be of specific interest to historians investigating litigation anent liability, but it surely would engage anyone wanting to know more about the asperities endured by our western ancestors.
The text is burdened at times by repetition, but that fault may be more than offset by a signature of aptly selected photographs that serve as ocular proof of, among other things, the role of deforestation in lubricating avalanches and the crushing power of the white behemoth that killed six of the eight children of Marcella Doyle, a widow who ran a boardinghouse, in
Woodstock, Colorado, in 1884—a sorrowful event that set the stage for much legal drama to follow.
MICHAEL L. JOHNSON,
University of Kansas
JOSHUA D. WOLFF. Western Union and the Creation of the
American Corporate Order, 1845–1893. New York:
Cambridge University Press. 2013. Pp. xi, 305. $90.00.
When historians study late-nineteenth-century industrial expansion and corporate abuse, their gaze usually falls upon railroads’ spidery expansion westward and their economies of scale. In Western Union and the Creation of the American Corporate Order, 1845–1893,
Joshua D. Wolff turns instead to telegraphy. The progress of Western Union, notes Wolff—from capitalizing on Samuel Morse’s invention, to devouring competitors, to establishing an effective postbellum monopoly—symbolized “the triumph of economic liberalism over republicanism” (p. 289).
Telegraphy represented the great communications revolution of the nineteenth century. Grasping the import of Morse’s technology, Western Union incorporated in the 1850s and benefited from the Republican
Party’s 1860 victory to capture the market. Republicans embraced a corporatist ethic, reminiscent of earlier mercantilism, and willingly committed public resources to promote industrial growth, be that railroad land grants, subsidies for a transcontinental railroad, or protective tariffs. During the Civil War, telegraph companies managed to engineer profitable control not only of the northern military telegraph, by coaxing Lincoln’s
War Department, but also of southern telegraphy, by assuring the Confederacy of their impartiality. These sharp business practices enabled them to earn high profits and swallow up the competition. Western Union bragged of having a larger capitalization than the New
York Central Railroad by the late 1860s, making it arguably one of America’s largest and most powerful corporations.
Western Union’s rapid capturing of market share concerned many in government, leading to the 1866
Telegraph Act, which allowed for rate-setting on government messages and the potential for future nationalization of telegraph lines. Western Union fought regulation; and that battle, combined with anti-union practices, pooling arrangements to control costs, and
Jay Gould’s speculative exploits, helped paint the company as predatory and interested primarily in its stockholders and financiers rather than the public good.
Wolff echoes Richard White’s Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America (2011) by describing nineteenth-century telegraph expansion as one not of bold entrepreneurs and innovative corporate strategies, but of piratical tactics and speculative greed. While Wolff laments the binary nature of earlier “robber baron” interpretations, he steers the portrait of postbellum corporations away from recent positive portrayals of Gilded Age businessmen—for example, Jean
Strouse’s Morgan: American Financier (1999) and Ron
Chenow’s Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. (1998) and House of Morgan: An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Finance (1990)—to criticisms reminiscent of early-twentieth-century Progressive historians.
Rather than economic liberalism, Western Union’s tactics reflected a type of Gilded Age crony capitalism ambivalent over laissez-faire. The company welcomed government patronage but resented oversight. In one breath, they denied holding a monopoly, despite controlling 90 percent of business, or requiring any regulation of trade; in the next, they claimed that they should be a monopoly because of competition’s destructive potential, mimicking an appeal for vested rights denied by the Taney Court in the 1837 Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge case. In addition, Western Union happily enjoyed government aid, be that War Department largesse or the use of railroads’ right-of-way and rentfree occupation of depots, themselves the product of government support via land grants, subsidies, and government stock purchases. In a sense, the telegraph monopoly reflected Joseph Schumpeter’s observations on entrepreneurial “creative destruction.” Industries achieving profitability and market dominance interrupted patterns of destructive innovation by seeking public allies to entrench their monopoly and weather “the perennial gale” of competition. This favored stockholders over aspiring risk-taking innovators who threatened to disrupt the economic status quo. In the end, as with Western Union, you were left, as Schumpeter wrote, with “nobody within and nobody without the precincts of the big concerns” (Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy , pp. 88, 142).
Wolff’s book exhibits excellent prose and manuscript research of the highest order. Historians wishing a better understanding of the nineteenth-century communications revolution, particularly its business history, must grapple with his book.
MICHAEL J. CONNOLLY
Purdue University North Central
JINX COLEMAN BROUSSARD. African American Foreign
Correspondents: A History. (Media and Public Affairs.)
Canada and the United States 899
AMERICAN HISTORICAL REVIEW JUNE 2014
Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. 2013.